Identifying and supporting students with mental health challenges is not only helpful for success in today’s educational setting—it is necessary. Approximately 1 in every 5 youths have a mental health condition, and high school students with a mental health condition have the highest dropout rate (37%) of any disability group.
Educators and other school personnel play an important role in helping students attend to learning while developing the skills needed to address and overcome the challenges that accompany a mental health illness.
However, without professional development or other training, it can be difficult for teachers and others in positions of support to know how to best work with students in these situations. While not every education professional is trained to specifically identify and address students with this type of need, making a few small changes in the classroom and school environment will help create an environment conducive to learning where students feel safe and secure.
Strategies for Teaching Students with Mental Health Conditions
“Mental health promotion should be the business of all teachers, who need to be conscious of their own emotional needs as well as being supportive of those of others. With a positive, caring ethos in place the school can create a safer and more productive learning environment and one that is more facilitative and therapeutic for pupils…” Hornby & Atkinson (p. 2)
Education & Stigma Reduction
It is important that we as educators and administrators invest time towards learning about mental health and actively work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
This can be done by:
- Teaching about or facilitating dialog in the classroom surrounding mental health.
- Addressing remarks or statements that add to the stigma. Rather than ignoring uncomfortable statements, use communication techniques to foster healthy discussions.
- Encouraging students to support one another.
- Providing access to resources for students who may need them.
Understand Behavior Patterns & Early Warning Signs
According to Jessica Minahan, coauthor of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Student, “students with anxiety or other mental health challenges may demonstrate inconsistent performance and behavior, which may fluctuate with their emotional state.” Minahan emphasizes having a flexible learning environment that can adapt as needed to respond to fluctuating situations.
Williams et. al. (2010) also demonstrate the importance of fostering a supportive environment, but stress that educators need to be able to recognize early warning signs, particularly for students who are unable to describe how they are feeling. Some of these warning signs include:
- Signs of withdrawal
- Disrupting activities
- Refusing to comply with authority or rules
Early identification will help teachers provide necessary interventions prior to escalation or increased frustration with work.
Foster a Safe & Supportive Environment
In “Children’s Mental Health Promotion & Support: Strategies for Educators” Williams et al. offer many different strategies for teachers who work with students requiring mental health support, including:
- Identifying team members who can help provide support as needed, based on skills.
- Creating a safe and stable environment. This may include having a regular schedule, modifying expectations (such as allowing work to be done separately or recorded if speaking in front of the class is a trigger), and clearly outlining consequences.
- Allowing for breaks (both by the student and for the class) and implementing a plan if the student needs to request a break.
- Remaining calm and in control without engaging in power struggles if issues arise.
As educators, we can also work to create a calm and supportive environment by incorporating Mindfulness and breathing exercises into the daily schedule, and working to identify & reduce triggers in classroom setting & curriculum.
Teachers play a critical role in the lives of students with mental health conditions, in both skill development and support. It is important to foster a positive relationships with all students, however it is particularly essential for students with mental health conditions. Knowing they have a trusted adult who cares about their well-being helps these students recognize that they do, in fact, have a system of support and have someone who will work hard for their success, no matter the challenges they face.